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It is a charming irony that the man whose appearance is best remembered as Frankenstein’s monster should be equally regarded for his mellifluous voice as narrator (and protagonist) in ‘Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’
It is another irony that ‘Boris Karloff’ was never his legal name. William Henry Pratt signed his name as “William Henry Pratt AKA Boris Karloff.” He was the youngest of nine siblings; his older brothers were distinguished members of the British government. Mr. Karloff abandoned this career to become a more respectable monster.
He was born in London, England in 1887, with bow legs, a lisp, and a stutter. He shed the stutter, but the lisp remained and helped distinguish his usually soft voice. That distinctive voice has become most associated with the 1966 television production of Dr. Seuss’s ‘Grinch.’
In 1909, he toured Canada, performing theatre. Afterwards, Mr. Pratt became Mr. Karloff on stage. In 1912, a cyclone hit Regina, Saskatchewan, where he had been staying. He and other performers helped clean up the city.
He was cast in silent films when he first arrived in Hollywood. Mr. Karloff appeared in eighty films before playing the monster in James Whale’s version of ‘Frankenstein’ (1931). He was credited as “?” in the immensely successful feature.
Other roles followed swiftly, many that were in horror films. He appeared as Frankenstein’s monster in two more films: ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935) and ‘Son of Frankenstein’ (1939). He also played Imhotep in ‘The Mummy’ and Dr. Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu,’ both roles in 1932.
Although he was first a silent film star, he made the transition to ‘talkies’ easily, and recorded several stories. He played ‘Cymbeline’ for the Shakespeare Recording Society and narrated ‘Peter and the Wolf’ with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra.
Other recordings were intended for children. Among these were ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes,’ and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ by Lewis Carroll.
Mr. Karloff had grown up quite poor; he is quoted as once having wished for an extra dime for a pair of doughnuts with his coffee. Perhaps because of his roots, he was charitable, kind and a gentleman. He donated particularly to children’s charities.
He was also interested in fair treatment for adults: he was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, which was formed as a reaction to the working conditions at the Hollywood Studios in the 1930s.
Boris Karloff continued acting until his death in 1969; a couple of films were released posthumously. Perhaps his greatest legacy is his narration of ‘Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’ (1966), which has been at the top of Christmas specials’ popularity lists for many years since. It is a fitting finale for a monster with a big heart.
Image Courtesy of Fr. Dougal McGuire